Juan de los Muertos [2011]

I never get tired of opining that Zombies in fiction work best when they act as a mirror for society. Thinking about Zombies in this way makes them almost automatically satirical, depending on how much humour you need present in order to deploy the term. The trend recently seems to be to try and more firmly push the Zombie into a comedic function, and I guess this is at least partially because the biomechanics of a Zombie are inherently a little slapstick. Part of the problem with Zombie stories generally appears to be the problem of unity of action. For example, Shawn of the Dead is really rather aimless when you think about it – they repeat the basic plot of “Collect person A and take them to place B” three or four times, depending on how you count. Zombieland has a road-trip aesthetic, but rather than draw that out they put the entire film on hold to murder Bill Murray, a twenty minute period with no dramatic energy. Of the entire Zombie canon, only the two versions of Night of the Living Dead and Day of the Dead appear to me to have a central through line consistent from beginning to end. There is an infrequently-discussed genre form based around episodic action: the Picaresque.

In English, I think the picaresque is a minor genre, seldom given that much attention. It is, for example, not mentioned in any of the English courses offered at VUW. It is most often found in English in fairy-story derivatives, especially in children’s literature, so someone like Brer Rabbit is arguably a picaresque hero. Huckleberry Finn could be considered another example. Similarly, an argument could be made that the emergent genre of the “slacker comedy” is a new expression of picaresque concepts. My understanding is that this is a much more important genre form in other languages, but since English is all I speak, I’ll leave it at that comment. The key ideas in the Picaresque are that we have iconic semi-criminal character or characters who engage in semi-shady activities in a highly episodic way. These tales are intended to be amusing, if not actually laugh-out-loud funny.

There are a number of problems with translating the picaresque into cinema. Most important are the iconic nature of the characters, and the necessity of episodic action. A film made up of a string of small incidents can often feel a little unsatisfying in comparison to a single unified story. Try to recollect the last time you went to an art gallery and saw a single canvas with more than one picture on it- it doesn’t happen, people instead paint 5 little pictures and put them in a sequence. Same thing for film. Occasionally some genius will make a multi-part film seem like a good idea, such as Pulp Fiction, but mostly, these works tend to feel a little underwhelming, as if the full power of the cinematic medium was not used. YMMV, obviously. I think iconic characters work best in episodic situations, where we can see different aspects being used of the iconic identity over time.

Which, at last, brings us to Juan of the Dead, which is fairly clearly a zombie-themed picaresque. That means that a lot of the usual viewing expectations I had at the start of the film need to be discarded with fair alacrity. We aren’t going to see an initial premise explored in increasing depth over the course of the film. We’re not going to see character change or growth to any meaningful degree. We’re going to get satiric flashes, but not a sustained exploration of one topic. We’re going to get episodic action, rather than one strong through-line. In other words, this is not a zombie story that’s going to work best when acting as a mirror of society – though it does do that too. In some ways, this radically different genre spine justifies the experiment even if it were terribly done.

It isn’t terribly done, especially if you can adjust your expectations to embrace the picaresque. I found it rather fun. I liked the frequent jabs at communism, I liked the frequent jabs at capitalism. I enjoyed the irredeemably dodgy main cast. I enjoyed a lot of the sight gags. If the film never really fired my imagination, it nevertheless warmed my heart and put a smile on my face, which makes it the best zombie comedy I saw in 2013.

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